The phrase is likely to have been an adaption of an older phrase “going to heaven in a wheelbarrow” that strangely meant going to hell.
It’s understandable that people these days may increasingly be thinking that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. This makes us wonder where a phrase like this comes from and what a handbasket has to do with going to hell.
To go to hell in a handbasket means to go to one’s doom, to deteriorate quickly, to proceed on a course to disaster.
According to Grammarist, the idiom is an American phrase that came into use during the American Civil War, but it seems clear that its roots extend back much further.
The phrase may have been inspired by the phrase going to heaven in a wheelbarrow meaning going to hell that dates as far back as the 16th or 17th century. The 17th century stained glass window shown below is from a church in Gloucester, England and depicts a woman being taken away in a wheelbarrow by the devil.
Other similar artistic and literary references feature hay-carts, hand-carts as the mode by which a person might be taken to hell by the devil.
The reference to a handbasket may have been inspired by the use of baskets to catch the heads of a condemned men after their execution by guillotine in France and elsewhere.